Roman Mars: And now 99% Invisible presents our new limited series According to Need. Here’s your host, Katie Mingle.
Katie Mingle: I live in the north part of Oakland near the border of Berkeley and Emeryville. Like other gentrifying places, this one was recently given a cutesy name by real estate agents hoping to attract new people to the area: NOBE (for North Oakland Berkeley Emeryville). I’m not sure the name has stuck, but the new people certainly have. They’ve moved into the 1920s bungalows and craftsmans, painting and landscaping and refurbishing the neighborhood.
My girlfriend and I moved to this neighborhood last year. And we were thrilled to find our apartment because it was two bedrooms, with a nice big kitchen and a washer and dryer in the unit – my first ever. All this and the rent was still under three thousand dollars a month which, for the area, was actually extremely reasonable. I know – insane. But true.
As we settled into the new place and started meeting neighbors, it didn’t take long before we realized that some of them were homeless. There was a guy sleeping in an old Lexus right in front of our house, and another guy who seemed to be living in the cabin of a boat parked on the side of the road, just across the street from us.
I was already working on this series about homelessness, so of course, I went to go say hi to the boat guy.
Katie: Knock knock. [KNOCKS ON DOOR]
Katie: Hey, how’s it going? I’m your neighbor.
Michael: Oh, how you doing?
Katie: Good, how are you?
Michael: I just took a bath. So right now I’m trying to get to work.
I’m squinting up at my boat-dwelling neighbor whose name is Michael. The vessel he lives on is a 15-foot speed boat with a little sleeping cabin and is named Gruba Dupa. Or something like that.
Michael: Gruba Dubba.
Katie: Gruba Dupa is what it says.
Michael: Gruba Dupa. Yeah.
Quick but important interjection here. I found out later that Gruba Dupa means “fat ass” in polish.
Katie: Who named it that?
Michael: Yeah, my nephew. He just wanted the name out on the water. They’d be on the CB: “Gruba Dupa coming through, Gruba Dupa coming through.”
Micahel is wearing jeans and an orange fluorescent vest and holding a hard hat. I find out later he’s an electrician on a construction crew for a new highrise in San Francisco.
Katie: I… so I live right over there and I’m also a journalist.
Michael: Oh really?
Katie: I’ve been doing a bunch of reporting on people living in RV’s and cars. And I haven’t talked to anyone that’s living in a boat…
Michael: In a boat? It’s very fascinating.
What I most want to know about Michael is where he’s from – like, where he lived before he was homeless.
There’s this persistent myth about homelessness – maybe especially persistent in California – that the homeless people here aren’t really from here. Some people suggest that maybe folks came here from other areas to take advantage of better social services or better weather. But the data doesn’t support this. The last big survey done in Oakland found 78% of homeless respondents in the city of Oakland reported living in this county – Alameda County – at the time they became homeless and most of the rest of the respondents just came from some other county in California.
I suspect Michael is from Oakland, maybe even from this neighborhood.
Michael: My mother – may you rest in peace, mom – we used to stay right there.
Katie: Wait, where?
Michael: You’re in that house right there?
Katie: I’m in the like beige tall one.
Michael: Yeah, that tall one?
Michael: We used to stay there.
Katie: You used to stay where I live.
Michael: Yes. Me and my mother and my younger brother…
In case you didn’t catch that with the traffic noise, Michael is not only from this neighborhood, he used to live in my house.
He tells me later he hasn’t lived in that house for many years – since the 1990s. And then he moved right next door, lived there for a bunch of years, then he left the neighborhood for a while, struggled with addiction, got clean, and finally he ended up back here, on the block he most considers home and where he still has friends from the old days.
Michael: A lot of us, me and Tolfree – the one that sleeps in the Lexis.
Michael: His dad used to stay in – one, two, three, four – about five houses down. They had a trucking company called Tolfree Trucking. Nice trucks. Oh, my God…
Of course, it makes perfect sense that most of Oakland’s homeless population would be from Oakland if you have even the most cursory awareness of what has happened to the housing market here in the last decade.
Let’s take the building I live in – where Michael used to live – as an example. It’s a 2200 square foot duplex in North Oakland. In 2009, the assessment records showed it was worth a hundred and five thousand dollars. Last year, it was assessed at a million dollars, and would probably sell for quite a bit more than that.
In the last five years especially, thousands of people like me have moved to the Bay Area for jobs. And the cost of rent in places like Oakland and Berkeley has sky-rocketed.
Low-income African American residents in the area have been the hardest hit by all of this. As new people have arrived, thousands of Black people have moved away, and thousands have become homeless. My own neighborhood reflects this, Michael and I reflect this.
But far beyond my block, you can see the effects of these economic and demographic shifts. Almost as if a tidal wave of wealth has washed the poor people of the Bay Area out of their houses, and into the streets.
Like a lot of people, I probably looked past all of this for a while, but eventually, just the sheer scale of it in my city became so startling that I started wanting to understand it and report on it. I didn’t know what the story I wanted to tell was for a while, and it took me a bit to figure it out. Because there’s this whole huge world you have to try to understand first. And to start this series, I want to take you on a little tour of this world so that you can get a sense of it.
The most visible way that homeless people live in the Bay Area is the tent encampment. Most of these encampments are easily seen from the road. In fact, they’re practically in the road – tents and tarps and belongings spilling off of sidewalks and into streets. But the encampment where Elizabeth Easton lives, in a tiny little house made out of plywood and two by fours-
It was sort of hidden away, down a dirt path next to some railroad tracks. Elizabeth told me she’s always liked the idea of living in a tiny house.
Elizabeth: That’s all I used to watch.
Katie: What do you mean watch?
Elizabeth: Tiny House. On TV.
Katie: Is there a show?
Elizabeth: Yes! More than one! Tiny House Living, uh, Tiny House Nation…
She’d like to have a tiny house on some land that she’s actually allowed to live on. But that’s not what she has right now.
Elizabeth: Come on.
Katie: You’re gonna show me?
Elizabeth’s house is dark and windowless. There’s a futon that takes up most of the space and then piles of tools and clothes.
Katie: And then what’s in that room?
Elizabeth: That’s where I have my little toilet. Over there.
Elizabeth’s bathroom is maybe 2 and half square feet, with a dirt floor and one of those medical looking toilet-chairs with a bucket underneath. Every few days she empties the bucket and burns the waste. She also has a small front yard with a fence made out of pallets, where her two dogs could lounge in the sun. It’s a far cry from the places you see on Tiny House Nation. But it’s still home.
Elizabeth: I know one thing, I’m not homeless. I’ll put it that way. They can say what they wanna say. But I’m not homeless. I have a home.
Elizabeth preferred to think of herself not as homeless, but as homesteading. Homesteading is what she felt like she had done – found a little piece of land and claimed it as her own. Built her own tiny house. But in her most powerless moments, she would talk about herself as homeless. Homesteading was a good day. Homeless was the day the police came and told her she couldn’t be where she was anymore. Which had happened before and would happen again.
Of course, not everyone lives in an encampment. There are lots of people living in more hidden ways. A few miles from Elizabeth, in what people sometimes call Deep East Oakland, I met Reggie.
Reggie: Right here. See where them cars is at? Come on. Let’s slide.
He sometimes sleeps in a broken-down minivan that’s parked behind a house with a pitbull on a chain. But he can only sleep in the van when he can scrounge up ten bucks. That’s how much he has to pay to the owner of the van, per night. He gets the money by panhandling.
Katie: Could you just say where we are? For the recorder.
Reggie: Oh, we at the McDonald’s.
Everyone who lives in Oakland has been asked for money at some point by a panhandler. And, there’s long been an idea that giving cash to people on the street is the wrong way to support them. But I will say, after my two years in the field I basically think that’s garbage. Some people buy drugs, sure. But even the ones who do, are also buying food or water, or, like Reggie, renting themselves a place to sleep at night. Like anyone else, they have a budget.
McDonald’s Employee: Hello, welcome to Mcdonald’s. How can I help you?
Reggie has strong feelings about the dos and don’ts of asking people for money, which he was kind enough to guide me through.
Reggie: You know, see some people don’t do it right. Like c’mon, lemme show you something. Certain, certain… certain places where you shouldn’t stand.
His first piece of advice: Don’t stand between the window where people pay and the window where they get their food. This is bad etiquette.
Reggie: This is hella ghetto, this is ghettttttto. Ok.
From this spot, you can see what change people get before they even have a chance to put it back in their wallet.
Reggie: That ain’t cool, you know. That is not cool. I think that’s…
Katie: That’s, like, too aggressive…
Reggie: Yeah. That’s aggressive panhandling.
Also, don’t bother people with kids, at least not in this part of Oakland, where everybody, even people with houses, are struggling.
Reggie: You taking away from the kid’s mouth. You know? I don’t like to do that.
And finally, don’t be too hurt when people say no. That’s one that Reggie had to learn over time.
Reggie: I’m just glad it don’t hurt like I used to.
It’s hard not to get hurt when the stakes are this high. If Reggie can’t panhandle the ten bucks for the mini-van. He won’t have anywhere to sleep tonight, and he’ll end up just wandering the streets.
Reggie told me he wanted to find a stable place to live with his high school-age daughter who is also homeless and stays with a friend. But most of the time, he’s so busy trying to survive that he just can’t chart a path out of this life.
Reggie: It’s hard to get out of this (bleep) when you’re homeless. You don’t know what your life is gonna be in the next two hours. You know, it just swallows you up.
Katie: And do you feel like there is a way for you to break above that cycle?
Reggie: I can’t even answer that right now. All I know, I’m just.. as my baby says, “Day by day, Dad.”
Day-by-day was how everyone I met outside lived. It’s hard to make plans for the future and carry through with them while homeless. There’s always some new crisis to deal with. Maybe your phone gets stolen, or you lose your ID, or you have to pick up all your things and move as fast as you can because someone doesn’t want you where you are.
[INDISTINCT SOUNDS OF CHILDREN PLAYING]
Katie: So if you turn your car all the way off, it just starts honking?
Thalia: Yeah, look.
[CAR HORN HONKS]
Thalia Garcia and her husband and six kids often end up sleeping in the car when they can’t find a friend or relative to crash with. Today, she’s parked in front of her kid’s elementary school in her beat-up old Ford Explorer. And her crisis right now is that when she turns her car off, it lets out an unending honk. Which… is mortifying.
[CAR HORN HONKS]
Thalia: There’s always something happening to me.
Thalia: Yeah. I’m just like, okay. [LAUGHS] I don’t even know what to think anymore.
Thalia had just had a little bit of good news though. She found a woman who was willing to rent a room to her and her husband and their kids. It was just one room for all eight of them, and it was only for a few months. Still, it was something.
She wasn’t sure what she would do after the three months was over, but she couldn’t think too much about it at the moment. Because now, there was a new crisis. Her car battery was dead.
[CAR ENGINE PUTTERING]
Like Michael and Elizabeth and Reggie and everyone I got to know over the last two years, Thalia wanted permanent, stable housing. She just couldn’t figure out how to get it.
For a lot of homeless people the high cost of rent, coupled with the other barriers like deposit and good credit, rule out being able to get housing on their own without some kind of subsidy.
There’s Section 8 – now officially called Housing Choice – which is a voucher program for low-income folks, but the waitlists are all currently closed in the Bay Area. Besides Section 8, there’s the occasional low-income housing development that opens up. But the last one I heard about in Oakland had 28 units and they got 4,000 applications.
And so what’s left in terms of help? Basically what’s left is the homeless service system. It might surprise some of you to know that we even have a system in place to help homeless people get inside. But, we do.
And after exploring a lot of different corners of the world of homelessness and talking to hundreds of people, this system is what I decided this series should be about. Because this is it. Like, this is the system we have right now to solve homelessness, which is a huge issue in this country. We already have hundreds of thousands of people dealing with homelessness nationwide. And we may soon see a dramatic increase due to COVID-related job losses and evictions. And so how this system works are questions with huge stakes.
And yet, It’s the part of this world that I honestly had to work the hardest to understand. It’s confusing and opaque; some might say kafkaesque, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Everyone I met had interacted with the system. Some, like Reggie, had given up on it.
Reggie: This (bleep) is designed to keep a (bleep) down man. This is not designed for nobody to come up. These programs is not designed to really come up.
Other people, like Thalia, were still waiting to get something from it.
Thalia: What does it take to be priority for them? I don’t understand it.
Thalia isn’t alone. A lot of people don’t understand what it takes to be a priority in this system. But I can finally say that I do. It’s a system that prioritizes resources according to need. But how do you decide whether one person needs housing more than another? And who actually gets help when there are so many people who need it? That’s what we’re gonna explore over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.